When I first watched the pilot of this series a few months back, I wasn’t blown away. My brief comment on it was “it just made me want to watch the movie again”. But I didn’t get round to writing a full review of it. So when it came time for my Emmy thoughts post (coming this weekend!) I decided I should re-watch the pilot and actually do the full review. Second time round though, I found myself more drawn in. Fortunately while not getting round to writing the review, I’d also not got round to cancelling the series link, and just 4 days later, I seem to have polished off the whole ten episodes.
I think that’s really the best way to watch this series. At one episode per week it would have been glacially slow. Even watching two or three episodes back to back I found it best to have a puzzle book to hand. It did have momentum, I wanted to continue to the next episode each time one finished, but it was a kind of satisfying slow chug rather than anything particularly speedy and I think with a week-long gap I would’ve lost interest.
Taken at face value the story is a well constructed, but not exactly revolutionary tale of a normal guy who happens to meet a hitman. From that one random encounter, the impacts ripple outwards and escalate until it’s a huge epic story with the police, the mob, the FBI and a fair number of relatively innocent bystanders. Everything stems from that one encounter.
The hitman, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is the only large, extravagant thing in the show. Every other character is just a normal small town person going about their normal lives. Malvo leaves chaos in his wake, both through his own actions and through the influence he has on others. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a downtrodden insurance salesman and henpecked husband until Malvo shows him that there are other ways of dealing with his problems. Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is a small town deputy just learning how to be an investigator until she’s the only person that sees everything is not so simple. If Malvo hadn’t sat next to Lester, they would all have just gone about their normal lives.
But he did sit next to him and the way that everything builds from there is both elegant and intriguing. As I said, the momentum just keeps going, I won’t spoil the ending (or actually the middle either) but it all comes together very satisfyingly, answering questions that I wasn’t always aware that I had, and filling in all the gaps. I was particularly impressed and pleased with the handling of passing time to move the story forwards. The characters all grow and develop beautifully, building from ‘simple’ first impressions to really complex and engaging people. Again, the exception is Malvo himself, he doesn’t change or grow, he is just who he is from the start.
The tone of the piece is what is really unique about the show. It’s taken straight from the film and continues that off-beat quirkiness without ever really becoming irritating. It’s hard to describe really, it’s a kind of black, dry humour running alongside some quite bleak and violent drama, it’s all quite minimal, focussing on tone of voice or even length of silence rather than number of words. I can see it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but it’s quite immersive and partnered with the beautiful landscapes and film-quality cinematography that’s now become standard for television series it really draws you in.
The second season has been commissioned and will be a separate story, taking place decades before this story with different actors and characters. That’s mostly a good thing, because this season was such a well contained, isolated story I wouldn’t want them to bolt much more onto it. But I will miss these characters and the excellent cast, fingers crossed they can recreate the magic next time.